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Charlotte doctor commits her career to treating multiple sclerosis

By Katya Lezin

Jill Conway’s first thoughts of becoming a doctor can be traced back to her early childhood in rural Kentucky, when a vet came to her family’s farm to fix an injury one of their horses had sustained after running into a fence.

Conway, four or five years old at the time, was impressed.

“I have always been attracted,” she says, “to the capacity to do something good about something bad.”

Conway, 46, now puts that capacity to practice in her role as director of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Center at Carolinas Medical Center. She moved to Charlotte (along with her husband, Shawn Miklaucic, 45, and 12-year-old triplets Jack, Nicholas and Claire) five years ago to join Dr. Mike Kaufman at the Center he founded in 1993. She works with a nurse practitioner and four dedicated nurses to follow a patient load of approximately 4,000 people suffering from MS.

It is, she says, “the first disease-specific center in the country,” and was recognized as such by a certification from the Joint Commission, a nonprofit accrediting organization for health care programs across the nation.

Multiple sclerosis is generally believed to be an autoimmune disease in which the body makes antibodies that attack the central nervous system . Over time, the attack breaks down the coating around nerves, which interferes or blocks the transmission of signals from the brain to the rest of the body.

“It makes things that we otherwise take for granted, like walking, swallowing, going to the bathroom,” Conway says, “much more difficult.”

MS patients, who skew young (the average age of diagnosis is 30) and female, “have to think all day. There is,” says Conway, “a heavy fatigue factor.”

What appealed to Conway about the disease, and one of the reasons she chose to specialize in it, is that it lends itself to long-term treatment. She follows her patients for a long time (as opposed to a one-time surgical intervention) and she gets to know them well.

It is also, Conway says, “a massively happening field with an explosion of new medicines and treatments” in the last decade.

The goal of any MS treatment is “to tone down the immune system so that you stop attacking yourself,” and there have been many significant advances in how to do just that.

All MS drugs used to be injectable; now three come in pill form. Patients who were diagnosed 30 years ago have far more progression and disability than patients diagnosed today because there are so many more treatment options now.

“The motto in MS,” Conway says, “is what is done can’t be undone,” so early intervention is critical.

Conway is a national expert on the disease, often lecturing to medical professionals across the nation on new developments and research.

“I love that we can do something about this disease today,” she says, adding that “research and clinical trials are crucial.”

Conway’s role at the MS Center also involves overseeing CMC’s Neurology clerkship where 15 to 18 third- and fourth-year UNC Chapel Hill medical students treat MS patients under her supervision.

Conway brings many degrees and years of education to bear on her research and patient care. She has a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Michigan, a joint master’s degree in Philosophy and MD from the University of Illinois at Urbana, and a master’s in Science in Clinical Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Her philosophy background fits well with her medical training and neurology specialty, she says, because “both neurology and philosophy come at similar questions – who you are, how you work, what happens when things break down – from different angles.”

Once she studied MS, Conway knew she’d found her calling.

“I hate this disease,” she says. “No one should have to deal with it.”

For now, those who do have to deal with it are fortunate to have Dr. Jill Conway on their side.

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@mindspring.com.
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